Me Before You: On Disability, Suicide, and Guts


Our lives are not tragic, pathetic, or pitiful. This film is.
~ Not Dead Yet

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San Francisco’s Parental Leave Policy: A Pro-Life Dissent

Women hold up signs at a rally supporting paid family leave at City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is voting on whether to require six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents - a move that would be a first for any jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

We’re stuck in a position. If we don’t support it, you’re the bad guys.
Henry Karnilowicz

I think I have pretty decent pro-life credentials. My family and I have prayed for an end to abortion in church, at home, and outside our local abortion clinic (now closed, thank God). We’ve long supported, financially and otherwise, our local Right to Life affiliate, as well as the Women’s Care Center, an organization assisting pregnant women in need. I’ve written about pro-life matters in print and online, and I’ve spoken up in defense of preborn and all human life whenever given the chance.

That’s why I felt so conflicted when I saw my pro-life friends give their social media thumbs-up to San Francisco’s new parental leave mandate. The city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the law on April 6, and it provides for six weeks of full pay to new parents of babies and adopted children. It applies to most employers, who’d have to make up the 45% of income that isn’t covered by the state’s already generous parental leave policy.

On the surface, I get that this appears eminently pro-family and pro-life: extended benefits + no loss of income (or job) = more babies/less abortion. Many celebrating the new law pointed out that it is a tiny step in the direction of catching up to other developed countries that adopted such seemingly family-friendly policies long ago.

Yet, I’m uneasy with SF’s new mandate for at least two reasons – one economic, one theological. Feel free to set me straight on either one.

With regards to economics, I confess up front to a total lack of credentials – “dilettante” would be too generous in my case; “dabbler” would be closer to the mark. Yet, how much economic theory do you need to know to foresee that forcing businesses to provide workers something (parental leave, minimum wage, whatever) will mean less work. “By the simplest and most basic economics,” Thomas Sowell laid out, “a price artificially raised tends to cause more to be supplied and less to be demanded than when prices are left to be determined by supply and demand in a free market.”

Many large U.S. organizations already provide generous parental leave options voluntarily, without governmental coercion, and potential employees who are family oriented aggressively compete to work for them. By compelling other businesses with tighter margins to follow suit will inevitably result in job cuts to balance the books. As SF Small Business Commissioner Stephen Adams put it, “Can we make the Board of Supervisors run a business, meet payroll, so they understand how these things work? Enough is enough is enough. This is bad for small business.” Wouldn’t this have the unintended consequence of putting new stress on families?

So much for economics; on to Catholic social teaching – to wit, human freedom, distributism, and subsidiarity.

Certainly it’s true that our social institutions have a role to play in defending and strengthening family life, which naturally includes promoting material well-being. “The political community has a duty to honor the family,” the Catechism reads, including safeguarding adequate family benefits (2211). The question remains, however, as to the best way of making that happen “in keeping with the country’s institutions,” as the Catechism puts it, especially with a view toward respecting human freedom. It’s clear that there’s no virtue in being compelled to do the right thing. In fact, if anything, coerced actions in the name of charity usually produce the exact opposite: resentment, friction, and division.

So what to do? That’s where distributism comes in – an economic via media between socialism and unbridled capitalism. In a recent reflection on Acts 4 and the early church’s attempt to care for the poor, Relevant Radio’s Fr. Rich Simon flatly asserted that, as Catholics, “we are distributiststhat is, we want to get as much property as possible in the hands of as many people as possible, each under his own fig tree and his own vine, as the Scriptures has it.” Simon went on to contrast state-controlled economies and capitalism, concluding that, in practice, they both lead to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few – although capitalism is at least honest about human nature and our greedy tendencies.

“Distributism is the way to go for a Catholic,” Fr. Simon concluded, for it takes into account a realistic human anthropology and respects human freedom. For Simon and others of like mind, distributism in practice means that “if you can buy something for three cents more at a mom and pop store, buy it there instead of the big box store – it’s that simple.”

It may sound terribly naïve, but the distributism ideal seems to be the only way that we can respect the Catholic principle of subsidiarity – the idea that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order,” in the words of Pope St. John Paul II (Centesimus Annus 48; CCC 1883). In the matter at hand, subsidiarity would seem to require that disagreements over what benefits an employer owes his employees ought to be negotiated without recourse to state interference.

This is vitally important because political solutions to social inequities are notoriously fickle – governments and philosophies of governing come and go, and if the state is the only one guaranteeing our rights, then our rights are never really guaranteed. Moral persuasion as well as appeals to mutually beneficial consequences should be exhausted before imposing legislated mandates (cf. CCC 1940). “Right relations between employers and employees, between those who govern and citizens,” the Catechism teaches us, “presuppose a natural good will in keeping with the dignity of human persons concerned for justice and fraternity” (2213).

Requiring employers to provide parental leave benefits is not only counterproductive economically; it’s also bankrupt morally because it avoids the underlying conflict: a fundamental disagreement regarding a vision for human flourishing. Instead, the only real hope for a pro-family and pro-life social order is through personal conversion – a “cultural transformation” according to St. John Paul, who goes on to describe how it comes about in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[T]he cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices – at the personal, family, social and international level – on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over things (98).

In other words, it’s grievously short-sighted to rely on legislation and the state to address our society’s problems. “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity,” the Catechism insists, “solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business…” (1941).

What’s called for is nothing less than a full-scale, no-holds-barred, up-to-date witness to the Gospel – a “New Evangelization,” you might say. Stop-gap measures like San Francisco’s new law simply don’t go far enough. 

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